Times: Lockdown cancel culture is a distraction

This article was first published in The Times.

By the beginning of May, our news feeds had been chock-a-block with virus graphs and lockdown misery for weeks. So when it emerged that top scientist Neil Ferguson had resigned as a government adviser after contravening the guidelines to spend time with his married lover, it was the scoop we all needed.

Since then the stream of stories outing some politician or other for breaching lockdown rules, presented as unmissable breaking news, has not ceased. Rosie Duffield, the Labour whip, went for a walk with her partner. Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething took his son to buy chips. Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely attended a barbecue and ate half a sausage. And, of course, Dominic Cummings went to Specsavers.

There is a certain novelty in seeing politicians squirm and twist the truth over such mundane activities, rather than the more traditional infidelity rumours or fiddled expenses. This situation is a political journalist’s dream: all that is needed to embroil an elected representative in scandal is a single sighting of them outdoors.

For the rest of us, though, such gotcha stories have become tedious. The entertainment value of the initial Professor Ferguson scoop is gone. We surely ought to move on, just as we moved on from stories about insensitive tweets about drag queens from 2009.

Not only is the policy response to coronavirus endlessly complex and multi-faceted; it is also era-definingly important. How can the media scrutinise it constructively when news cycles are dominated by this kind of inane non-story? As valid as the Cummings scoop was, some journalists were still questioning ministers about it a week later, by which point the same handful of questions had become wearing in the extreme.https://f55893ec58f2ec620e59cd5167b51380.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The story was no longer developing. The point of maximum pressure on the government had ebbed away some time ago. Cummings had passed up the opportunity to resign. There was nothing new. Every drop of news value had been squeezed out of the story.

Journalists could have been interrogating ministers about what the new lockdown rules actually meant. They could have been pressing the government over its flexible priorities in balancing public health against the economy. They could have been investigating why mass tragedies in care homes across the country remained largely unaddressed.

Instead they found themselves sucked so deep into the world of tabloid gossip that they forgot about their duty to the public. Now more than ever, we need proper, rigorous scrutiny of the government’s every move. Lockdown cancel culture is a distraction.

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